1999 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking Craig Valentine Shares His Insights

I interviewed Craig Valentine on December 21, 2012 and asked him just one question: “What are your best pieces of advice on how to win the Toastmasters’ World Championship of Public Speaking?”

Craig is a sought-after motivational speaker, author, and speaking coach.  He is incredibly giving with his expertise – in fact you can get many of his best tips by signing up for free at http://www.52speakingtips.com/.


Tip #1: Tell a story and make a point

“In the championship I’ve seen a lot of speakers trying to make three major points in five to seven minutes, and you just can’t do that effectively.  What I always tell people who are trying to go for the championship is, ‘Tell one major story and make one major point.’  There’s an old proverb that says when you squeeze your information in you squeeze your audience out.  If you’re trying to get across three major points in five to seven minutes, that’s like trying to do a 45 minute keynote speech in seven minutes.  It just can’t be done and it shouldn’t be done.”

“If you look at Ed Tate, if you look at Darren LaCroix, if you look at Lance Miller — all of these are basically a story that had one major point.  Now Ed had several parts to his story, but it was still basically one major story with one major point.”

Most people make the mistake of simply retelling their stories; they do it through a lot of narration.  For example, ‘Well this happened to me, and I’m talking to my son, and my son told me that I didn’t do this right…’  You know, it’s all narration.  The key to storytelling, and the key to speaking, I believe, is what Lou Heckler said, ‘Don’t retell it, re-live it.’  I’ve actually expanded upon that, “Don’t retell it, re-live it, and invite your audience into your re-living room.”  What I mean by that is, you’ve got to invite them into the scene of your story so they can hear it how your heard it, see it how you saw it, and feel how you felt it.”

“Here is another quick example.  Did you watch the Olympics at all this past year?  Do you know who the oldest person in the Olympics was?  It was a 74-year-old equestrian from Japan.  A 74-year-old equestrian!  My seven-year-old son and I are watching the Olympics on TV, and all they kept saying as commentators was, “He’s 74, he’s 74.  He’s a 74-year-old equestrian.  He’s 74.”  Finally my seven-year-old son looked up and said, ‘Well how old is the horse?’”

“Do you know for a week I couldn’t get that thought out of my mind, so I Googled it.  I found out that the 74-year-old equestrian from Japan was interviewed, and they asked him, ‘How long will you continue to compete?’  His answer was, ‘I can go on forever, but my horse is 15.’  I thought – wow, my son’s question was much more relevant than I thought.”

“Let’s just take that that story.  It illustrates a key concept in self-development which is to never stop asking questions.  It is just a quick story about my son and me, but the dialogue helped you feel like you were there.  The dialogue is what put you directly in that scene, and you could hear my son say, ‘Well how old is the horse?’  Right?”


Tip #2: Your (foundational) phrase determines what stays

“Here’s a key to figuring out what you keep in your speech and what you keep out.  That’s a big part of winning the World Championship.  The phrase determines what stays.”

“Your point should be fewer than ten words so that it becomes repeatable – it becomes memorable.  I call it a foundational phrase.  The foundational phrase for this story was just four words.  It should also be somewhat rhythmic, ‘Never stop asking questions’ – that’s easy to say, it rolls off the tongue.”

“There’s a lot more to that story — that equestrian story.  My wife was with me, my daughter was with me, my son was with me, we were in Houston, my kids were running in the track national championships — but none of that matters, because none of that really supports my foundational phrase.  All the content that supports my foundational phrase I keep in.  If it doesn’t support my foundational phrase I take it out.  All I really needed was my son, the newscast, and what my son said about the horse.”

“Sometimes you can actually build brands off of your foundational phrases.  ‘Your dream is not for sale’ is a story that I tell — it’s a brand.  People repeat it everywhere I go.  They contact me and say things like, ‘Hey, I was going to sell-out on my dream, but I remember you said, your dream is not for sale.’”


Tip #3: Tap, tease, and transport

[As demonstrated in his Olympic equestrian story, Craig begins most of his stories with an question that has an esoteric or counter-intuitive answer.  I asked him how often he does this and why.]

“Almost every time — almost every story.  It’s what I call, ‘Tap and transport.’  In an educational sense it would be called, ‘Activating prior knowledge.’”

“A lot of speakers, start their stories and just expect their audience members to come along.  That’s a mistake.  You’ve got to tap into your audience’s world — or at least into their minds — first, before you transport them into your story.  Because then they want to come on the journey with you to find the answer.”

“I started by asking, ‘Did you watch the Olympics at all this past year?’ I tapped into your world by reminding you of the Olympics and your experience of it.  That’s important.  Then I tapped into your world even more by asking you, ‘Do you know who the oldest competitor was in the Olympics?’”

“This gets you involved.  You’re not sitting back as a passive spectator; you are actually an active participant.   People buy into what they help create.  So I’m making you part of the process.”

“Once I tap into your world with that question, I get you thinking about you, I get you thinking about your answer — then, and only then, do I transport you into my story to get the answer.  By you not necessarily knowing the answer, it builds tension.  I always tell speakers to ‘Tease them before you tell them.’  Whatever it is, tease them before you tell them.”

“For example, in one of my signature stories, I start, ‘What do you think is the number one thing that stands between most people living their dreams?’  People shout out all kinds of different answers.  That’s my tap.  I’m tapping into their world.  Who are they thinking about?  They’re thinking about themselves.”

“They yell out all the answers: fear, procrastination… this and that.  Then finally I say, ‘All your answers are wrong!  The number one thing is not what you think.’  That’s not only a tap, but it’s what I call, ‘Tap, tease, and transport.’  I tap into their world with a question, I tease them to want to know more.  Then and only then do I transport them into my story.  It is something I do very, very intentionally, and I suggest that speakers do that.  Otherwise there’s really no reason for us to want to come on that journey with you.  Tap, tease, and transport.  It’s a great way to get into your story.”


Tip #4: Don’t just tell your message, sell your message

People trying to win the World Championship have to realize that they are in sales.  When I won the World Championship, I was a beginner — I was just starting out and I didn’t know that much.  But, one thing I did very well in my World Championship speech is that I soldthe message – ‘If you take this step of having five minutes of silence in your life every day, you’re going to find a peacefulness, a tranquility, a serenity that you never felt before.  You’re going to finally feel fulfilled.’  I was selling the heck out of that message.”

“What does it mean to sell a message?  You never want to sell a product; you never want to sell a process; you always want to sell the result.”

“Here is another example.  When I went to buy my first car ever, I went to the dealership and the salesperson came up to me and said, ‘Are you looking at that car?’  I said, ‘Yes, sir.’  He said, ‘Great, let me tell you about it.  This car has this type of brakes, this type of engine, this type of power, this type of window.’  But my question is, ‘What is he trying to sell me?’  He’s actually trying to sell me the car.  Now I just said, ‘Never sell a product, always sell the result.’  I said, ‘Thank you, but no thank you.  I’m not interested.’  I didn’t even know why I wasn’t interested, I just wasn’t.”

“I went to a different dealership on the same day — different salesperson, same car.  This guy must have anticipated where I was in my life emotionally at that time — young and single and looking to mingle.  (Laughs)  He walks up to me and says, ‘Are you looking at that car?’  I said, ‘Yes, sir.’  He said, ‘Ooo, you’re going to look good in that one.  You’re going to be flying down the road, the wind’s going to be blowing through your hair, and the girls — let me tell you — the girls will be all over you.’  What do you think I did? I said, ‘Where do I sign?’  (Laughs)”

“He made the sale not because he sold me the car, but because he sold me the result — and he lied!  (Laughs)  I was lonely in that car, I’m telling you.  Just me and my payment — that’s all that was.”

“When I was talking about five minutes of silence in my World Championship speech, what I was really selling was was fulfillment, serenity, tranquility.  Figure out what result you’re really selling, and drive that home.  The title of my speech was, ‘A Key to Fulfillment.’  The result was built into the title — so was the curiosity.”


Tip #5: It is not about perfection, it is about connection

“The World Championship is not about being perfect.  It’s not about perfection, it’s about connection.  It’s not about perfection, it’s about connection.  You’re going to see several speakers go to the World Championship stage and do their speech flawlessly — and connect with no one.  Because they’re so into what they’re going to say, and how they’re going to act it out, and doing it flawlessly that they don’t even connect with the audience.  By the time you get on stage you shouldn’t even been thinking about what you’re going to say or what you’re going to do.  The thoughts should all be about your audience.”

“Right before I take the stage, what I say to myself is, ‘May I forget myself, remember my speech, and touch my audience’ – because it is no longer about me.  When you get up on the stage, if you come from that mindset, chances are you’re going to connect more deeply than the other contestants.”

“At that championship level everybody is going to have good content; everybody is going to have good delivery.  The difference in who wins and who doesn’t is in the connection; and you can feel that in the room.  So don’t be there for yourself, be there for your audience.”

“The quickest way to connect with an audience is to share the 4 F’s – your failures, flaws, frustrations, and firsts.  I almost always open up my speech with a failure story.  That way people relate to you.  I always tell people, ‘When you lift yourself up, you let your audience down.’”

“The inner dialogue of the audience members is, ‘Of course the strategies he’s talking about work for him, because he’s special.  These strategies will never work for me.’ The key to speaking is to take yourself off of any pedestal that they may have put you on, and never come across as special — come across as similar.  Put the process — not the person — on a pedestal.  Sprinkle failures throughout the speech to make sure that they keep me similar.”

“For example, if I’m talking about how imagination changed my life, I’m not going to talk about all the wonderful things I’ve done.  I’m going to talk about the wonderful way that imagination has helped me.  I’m putting the process, not me as a person, on the pedestal.”

“Sometimes I’ll share my dismal first SAT score with my audience.  The reason I do that is because when they hear my SAT score, they say, ‘Hey, he’s not any more book-smart than I am.  If he can accomplish this, I know I can do it.’  And that’s exactly what you want your audience to feel.”

If you think about my story — I was talking about my son making the comment about the Olympics.  I like what Mark Brown says, “Your stories don’t have to be sensational, they just have to be sincere.”  I’m telling a story about my son making a comment about a horse, and people love the story.  I don’t think your story has to be “climbing Mount Everest”.  Your story can be about your son and you watching the Olympics — because that’s similar, and it’s going to connect.


Try it out!

I wish I could have listened to and learned from Craig’s stories for hours and hours.  Again, you can get more of his wisdom for free at http://www.52speakingtips.com/.  For aspiring and established professional speakers, I also strongly recommend his book “World Class Speaking.”

My conversation with Craig yielded many insights.  Pick your ah-ha moment from among the following to apply to your next speech:  ‘Tell as story, make a point’; ‘Your phrase determines what stays’; ‘Tap, tease, and transport’; ‘Don’t just tell your message, sell your message’; or ‘It is not about perfection, it is about connection.’